May 8, 2020 . 5 min read
The co-founders of education startup Polygence have crucial advice for university students about to embark on their next journey.
Uncertainties and challenges have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for students on the cusp of graduation. Despite the virus, these students have to make tough decisions about what to do next. For those tasked with these difficult choices, the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund reached out to Jin Chow and Janos Perczel, the co-founders of Stanford-based educational company Polygence, for their advice.
Polygence is a selective online academy providing project-based learning to intellectually driven students by pairing them with researchers from top universities worldwide. Jin Chow, Polygence’s COO, grew up in Hong Kong and graduated as the valedictorian at Princeton University. She's now studying in graduate school while teaching at Stanford University. Janos Perczel, the startup’s CEO, graduated from MIT with a PhD in quantum physics and has a background in quantum computing and mathematics. They are both passionate about mentoring and equipping students with the skills and attitudes to help them overcome the challenges of the modern world with positivity, integrity and creative confidence.
Grace Wong, the Director of Communications and Marketing at Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund in Hong Kong, interviewed Jin and Janos during a webinar about choosing between studying and working, going corporate or startup and how to approach these important decisions.
This excerpt of Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace Wong: The impact of COVID-19 is huge and everyone is trying to adjust. But there are also opportunities out there, particularly for undergrad students in their final year. How does one go about deciding whether to move on to a graduate degree, work for a big corporate or do something else entirely?
Jin Chow: Absolutely there’s opportunity. Something that really clicked for me while I soul-searched during undergrad was that I loved teaching and also the education industry. I taught and mentored a number of students and I also tried a few vocational teaching programs in New Jersey prisons, helping inmates with resume writing, interview skills and job readiness. I also knew that I enjoyed dipping my toes into research. So, having taken all these things into account, I thought there’s no better way to combine my passions for teaching and research than doing a PhD. Building on that, two of the really great skills that undergrad taught me are communication and networking. Everybody should work on these two things, no matter where they are in life. Being ready and seeing who has connections for you in the industries you’re interested in is important—that’s really how we first started. Our strength was our fearlessness and being curious enough to approach different people, introduce ourselves and ask questions. That’s how we formed a number of important relationships and partnerships. I’d also like to add that a lot of people give the advice that work and passion are at odds with each other, but I think it’s the opposite. There’s definitely a way to make your work your passion, and your passion your work. Stick to something you’re truly passionate about and when there’s a will, there’s a way.
Janos Perczel: After completing my undergraduate degree, I had to make a tough choice: do I work for a company or start grad school? I ultimately decided to continue my education because I realized how much I enjoyed solving analytic problems through quantitative research. And these are skills that can be used in industries including finance and fintech. It requires advanced thinking. I think that in terms of choosing what you want to study in grad school, it’s important to question whether you can remain passionate about it. Otherwise, the course will be really hard. The hours are long and it doesn’t get any easier than the undergrad degree. And following up on what Jin said, if you’re really set on what you want to do and have determination, then people are willing to help you. MIT was a great platform with credible resources and introduced us to investors. People were willing to stand up for us because they understood that we were absolutely serious about starting this business. I think that perhaps the single most important thing, the magic sauce, is determination.
"I would encourage people to chase their dreams and set long-term goals, rather than being affected by shorter circumstances."
Grace: Both of you certainly share this kind of determination. How did you decide to take the first leap on your startup and what was the experience like for you both?
Jin: That was definitely one of the hardest and most exciting decisions that I’ve made in my life so far. After I finished my qualifying exams for my PhD, I realized that because I loved teaching and mentorship so much, then the classroom is obviously the best way to give back and inspire students with intellectual discovery. So I thought to myself, what if I could actually create a platform that could influence thousands of students, or even hundreds of thousands of students, and give them an opportunity to work with mentors who are world-class researchers? What if I could give them the kind of experience that Janos and I had? I wanted to push for social change. Even though I had zero experience in entrepreneurship, I decided to take that leap of faith. It’s been an amazing ride learning along the way with Janos and I’m happy with the decision. It’s fresh and exciting. And I think the reason we were able to get so far and gather all the resources we did was because of mentorship. We have mentors and advisors to the company who have gone through this process many times and have raised funds many times. Mentors helped us formulate our pitch, think about our network and become aware of the different aspects of business we know now. They taught us the ropes.
Janos: I loved teaching at MIT and I spent five semesters teaching undergraduate physics, and I also love technology. So this startup was really a match. Once we realized how much the internet could help us build this platform and impact many students, we wanted to offer the same kind of mentorship that we had, just as Jin said. That was really the spark and the inspiration behind this. In terms of turning these ideas into a business, we were able to do it more easily because Jin and I have complementary skill sets. And of course, we could attract students in both the US and Hong Kong. I myself was leveraging my background in technology, and I coded up and launched the platform. I was relying on my technical skills to make things work. I think the skill sets we had as a team allowed us to shape the product very early on in a way that fit our customer feedback, even as early as day one.
"MIT’s motto is “hands and minds”, which encourages everyone to be a hands-on learner, to do more than just read a textbook and get out there and build something. This idea led our philosophy when we were building Polygence."
Grace: Amid the COVID-19 crisis, how do we best go about pursuing our dreams? What kind of career plan should young people be following at this point?
Jin: It is obviously a very disheartening and scary time but hopefully COVID-19 will die down. I would encourage people to chase their dreams and set long-term goals, rather than being affected by shorter circumstances.
Janos: I think, again, resilience and perseverance are important. I want to encourage others to keep looking because there are many opportunities out there. Better times will come and don’t feel like all hope is lost. Keep going and be patient for things to improve.
Grace: How is MIT’s motto applied to the mission of Polygence, and what is the startup’s vision for the future?
Janos: MIT’s motto is “hands and minds”, which encourages everyone to be a hands-on learner, to do more than just read a textbook and get out there and build something. This idea led our philosophy when we were building Polygence. We had to do everything ourselves: putting together brochures, writing code, talking to students and parents and so forth. This MIT motto really rang true for us. We weren’t afraid to get our hands dirty and get stuff done. This has been the driving force behind getting things done with Jin. As for the future, we want to bring Polygence to classrooms around the world. We think that project-based learning and exposure to research early on is an incredibly important mission. We want Polygence to give students a path to engage with these projects successfully and solve open-ended problems, not just learning through memorization—something we unfortunately see in many corners of the world.
Jin: Our vision for Polygence is to transform the way in which research is thought about and accessed at the high school level. We want to demystify the world of research and make it something that kids don’t just dream of finding in university, or something that’s just for scientists. We want anyone to be able to participate. And I think a key piece to this puzzle as well is recognizing that there isn’t a sacrosanct difference between the student and the teacher, kind of like what we see in Hong Kong. We want students to be connected with mentors, people who are like a partner in crime as I like to think of it. The mentor is guiding you but also learning with you. There’s a fundamental switch to understanding that your mentor is on your side.
*NOTE: Polygence is the portfolio company of Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund.